Politics and Society

Saturday, September 10, 2011

A Review: A Fearful Joy, by Joyce Cary

   Maybe it is time for a Joyce Cary revue. From the look of things, such as the surprising current lack of critical praise or, seemingly, even an awareness of his work, it seems such hullabaloo may be necessary, replete with songs and scores and pantomimes, just to stir some interest – an approach I think the author himself would approve. For the moment, however, an introduction, at least, must be in order.
   Joyce Cary (born Arthur Joyce Lunel Cary, December 7, 1888 – March 29, 1957) was an Anglo-Irish novelist. Though he was never as well known or widely read as William Golding, or Graham Greene, he was a respected modernist writer of mid century, whose early short works were finally deemed too “literary”, by the Saturday Evening Post in America. Thereafter, he turned to novels, of which he wrote and published 17.
 I have read most of Cary’s output, and have a special appreciation for his two trilogies (1941-44, featuring The Horse’s Mouth, and 1952-55, featuring A Prisoner of Grace), which use the remarkable technique of telling essentially the same story, contemporaneously, of common events from the various points of view of the characters involved in these events. They are well worth the time spent, but anyone interested for the first time would be well served by this middle period book, A Fearful Joy. I think it showcases his huge talent as a writer as well as his extraordinary and compassionate humanism.
   It still amazes me that he is not more widely known and read, however. From the only review posted at Library Thing, an on-line forum for bibliophiles and other critics of literature, there is only this about his 1949 work, A Fearful Joy:
        The story of a doctor's daughter and the rather silly choices she
        makes during the upheavals of the late nineteenth and early
        twentieth century. She has an interesting private and public life
        and a variety of jobs. It's an interesting book but I had very little
        sympathy for the characters.

This is all true, so far as it goes, and an honest personal reaction to boot, but I think, it does not go nearly far enough. What Joyce Cary did in this novel is really much richer and more fully deserving of attention than the mere telling of a “story of a doctor’s daughter and the rather silly choices she makes . . .” The novel brings us fully and compassionately into the mind and heart of a real, everyday woman – not a heroine in the grand sense, but in the classic, novelistic sense - who grows in strength of character and enriches her own spirit throughout a long, rambunctious and fretful (but fascinating) life. This work reminds me much more of Defoe’s Moll Flanders (1722)  than of any other book. For its realistically comical and compassionate view of human folly and determination it compares very well, indeed. And it does this successfully – as Cary has done it elsewhere, most notably in Mister Johnson (1939) - in the present tense, with all the immediacy and intensity of experience that this technique offers.
   Yes, it is true that Tabitha Baskett is the rather flighty daughter of a widowed doctor, as she is the unrepentant sister of an older, beleaguered sibling who tries his unsuccessful best to look out for her after their father dies. She makes wildly imprudent choices (not once, but repeatedly) under the influence of her heart’s desire - the seductive charm of a true con-man and all-around scoundrel, Dick Bonser – and her pasted-together life as an adult, in the first four decades of the 20th century, is the reckoning of those choices. In the telling, all of this amounts to a rollicking character-driven tragi-comedy, a period piece drama, and a true slice of life. The very stuff of great literature!
   True to the comic tradition in literature, Tabitha– or ‘Bertie’, or ‘Tibby’, or ‘Lady Gollan’, or “Pops” – as she is variously known, is a hapless, hopeful gal who starts out in life as credulously naïve and foolish as a young girl can be. The story then is how such a one can make a life out of these qualities and propensities. And what a many-hued patchwork of stops and starts and re-starts that turns out to be! But her life is also a part of, and of a piece with, the age in which she lived it. It was the end of the Victorian era, the advent of the Jazz age, the fin de siecle, the age of invention, and even, as Auden would later have it, the "Age of Anxiety." This age, with all its changes, is rendered in all those dimensions, through “Tibby’s” eyes, with immediacy and a freshness of perspective that is truly hard to find in contemporary fiction. Cary is a master of immediacy and perspective.
    He allows us to see this world, not from our jaded perspective, but as Tabitha (nee Baskett) Gollan Bonser experienced it—anxiously and with trepidation, and as a phenomenon to be marveled at. This, I believe, is an important thematic part of the novel. For life is, among many other things, an experience of change and a challenge to our ability to adapt to the changes, though, as they are occurring, it is impossible to see them in their full and future significance. Through her experience of it, these changes- the advent of the automobile, the aero-plane, the mechanization of warfare - all of these things  come alive for us, with all the strangeness and newness and the frisson of challenge with which they must have appeared to those who actually did first witness them.
   ‘Tibby’s’ life evolves as respectable Victorian era stolidity is summarily shunted aside for the advent of noisy and dangerous automobiles, liberal politics, art salons and avant-garde magazines, the aero plane craze and, finally, two world wars, both of which are witnessed and endured by Tabitha.  In her serial roles as girlfriend, rich man’s mistress, avant-garde salon hostess, mother, wife to an arms maker and merchant, widow, grandmother and once again wife, Tibby lives a life which is as full and fretful as that of any in literature. The aspect of change – internal as well as external - accompanies her character like a shadow.

   But this “character” – and she is that, in every sense of the word, especially the ironic one - is more than just 'a character' – even a main character - in Cary’s novel. She is no mere stalking horse for our adventure. She is the emblematic figure of the Post-Victorian age: initially rebellious and willful, she is finally traditional and conservative, even amidst the detritus of her own bohemian inclinations, and their results - and a paradigm of human malleability (or foolishness) and immutability (or resilience), all at once. To answer the earlier criticism, Cary's tale is, not merely of a young girl who . . ., but of a woman who grows through the changes of circumstance and necessity, not into someone above or beyond the reach of her circumstances, but into her life in this world, as an independent person with a rich and varied sense of her place in it. That is the business of living! And we get to see her progress as intimately as is humanly possible, through her own immediate experience of events, ideas, and people, in the present tense. As immediate and intimate a tense as there is.

   The present tense narrative is a well chosen, modernist devise which works in this novel to help us overcome the most obvious barrier to identifying and ultimately sympathizing with Tibby; namely, her foolishness. As with other, putatively intimate literary devices, like stream-of-consciousness writing (which in any hands but that of a master is abysmally solipsistic) or first-person narrative, the scope of which can be a limitation on dramatic tension and suspense, since we never know anything the “narrator” can’t know, the present tense brings our attention to events as they are experienced by the character, i.e. as compelling occasions for responses, such as frustration and fear, or hope and relief. We feel these reactions right along with the characters. This almost cinematic immediacy involves us in their experience in a way that can only be called intimate, and from this intimacy there comes a sympathy. To carry on this tense throughout a novel must be a very tricky literary undertaking, but Cary is master of the form.
         What Tabitha dreads above all is the moment of parting. How shall she
         explain to Johnny [her young son, on being sent to boarding school] that
         now she must leave him, that she has sold him to the enemy. “He will cry,
          and that will give him a bad start.” But when her cab arrives and she
          goes with the headmaster . . .to say good-by, Johnny is shouting in the
          court among a dozen others . . . He is not going to interrupt his game.
          The master has to fetch him to say good-by.

   Cary uses this sympathy-inducing intimacy wisely and expertly. Not all characters – and there are here as many as appear in most Dickens novels - are as intimately revealed as Tibby and some others, for Cary judiciously limits his omniscient prerogative to certain characters and moments, which constraint helps us to see the characters the way he wants us to see them. Conversely, the technique works just as well in withholding too much sympathy from those others, with whom he (and we), in this circumstance, have little sympathy! It is a technical exercise in perspective! He wants us to see Tibby’s foolishness for what it is, to condemn it even, when that is appropriate, but not to disdain it. This goes just as well for her resilience and resolve; we come to realize, as she does, that sympathy is an effort and a perspective that has its own rules.
         In that sudden turmoil of feeling something has been broken and dis-
         solved. . . . She perceives that she is attached to Nancy [her Grand 
         daughter] by sympathy more powerful than love. She is furious with that
         slapdash and sensual creature, but she is joined with her in a profound
         community of life. . . . she is living Nancy’s life.
    This, I believe is Cary’s great gift as a writer. He has a very deep compassion for real and regular people, as such, and he is able to create the possibility of that experience for us as well. He is able to see, and most importantly, to help us see the very real human beings, and the very rich lives they create, the ones that animate and inhabit this ever-changing, ever-the-same world of ours. This particular work is, like so many of his others, in subject and substance, a welcome reminder of the very common humanity of our often personally melodramatic experience of our own ultimately comic lives.

  Tibby is an everywoman, like Moll Flanders, whose only wish is to get on in life and, of course, to have it her way. (This is no slight recommendation: Cary writes about people who live, not people who fail to live!) Like Moll, she has all the flaws that the human species is prone to—and at least one of its virtues. At heart, somewhere beneath the charm and conniving and the bluster and the bullshit, she is able, willing and even amazed enough to embrace the prospect of each tomorrow in this fretful world with a fearful joy. She is a warrior and a survivor; a woman who – like all of Joyce Cary’s heroes and heroines - lives her own life fully, even if, at times, foolishly, and who evolves throughout the process and progress of the book into a woman of real substance and even approaches a near-tragic stature (in our eyes) that she could not even dream about in her own fitful musing. It is to her credit as a survivor, and to Cary’s credit as a realist, that Tibby Bonser (Nee Baskett), out of all the many colorful characters who populate this narrative, is the last one standing on her own two feet—albeit alone.  It is a credit to his humanism that she has preserves and embraces yet her fearful joy.   

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